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Chile's Villarrica volcano erupts, causing thousands to flee

Picture of the Villarrica volcano, located near Villarrica 1200 km from Santiago, in southern Chile, which began erupting on March 3, 2015. (Ariel Marinkovic/AFP/Getty Images)
Picture of the Villarrica volcano, located near Villarrica 1200 km from Santiago, in southern Chile, which began erupting on March 3, 2015. (Ariel Marinkovic/AFP/Getty Images)

Early in the morning on March 3, Villarrica in Chile erupted, sending ash and lava flying some 3,300 feet up into the atmosphere.

Picture of the Villarrica volcano, located near Villarrica 1200 km from Santiago, in southern Chile, which began erupting on March 3, 2015 forcing the evacuation of some 3,000 people in nearby villages. (Ariel Marinkovic/AFP/Getty Images)

The eruption caused nearly 4,000 people to flee the surrounding areas, including from the nearby tourist town of Pucón, though the BBC reports that residents mostly left "calmly." After about 20 minutes, the volcano piped back down, and the nearby towns seemed okay.

Picture of the Villarrica volcano, located near Villarrica 1200 km from Santiago, in southern Chile, which began erupting on March 3, 2015. (Ariel Marinkovic/AFP/Getty Images)

Here's a slightly grainy but thoroughly mesmerizing video of the eruption, put together by POVI, a group that monitors Villarrica. Things get good starting around the 1:30 mark:

Here's a close-up of the lava fountains, caught by Ariel Marinkovic for the AFP:

Lava fountains from the the Villarrica volcano. (Ariel Marinkovic/AFP/Getty Images)

Some photographers even caught lightning accompanying the eruption — a phenomenon caused by static electricity in the ash clouds:

The lava then traveled down the slopes of the 9,380-foot high volcano, melting snow along the way and creating mudflows. Here's a shot of the flows on March 4:

The Villarrica volcano, near Villarrica in southern Chile, shows some activity on March 4, 2015, a day after it erupted. (Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images)

Villarica is mostly dangerous because of mudflows

Villarica is one of Chile's most active volcanoes and, according to the Smithsonian's Global Volcanic Program, is one of three tall stratovolcanoes in a chain that runs perpendicular to the Andes mountain range, believed to be caused by a fracture in the Earth's crust.

Scientists have documented eruptions from Villarica dating back to 1558 — mostly moderate eruptions that only occasionally spew lava. The last major eruption, before this one, came in 1985, though there have been plenty of smaller eruptions since.

Those outbursts can be deadly. Because the volcano itself is covered by 15 square miles of glaciers, the lava that flows down the side and mixes with ice and snow to form lahars — a mudflow slurry that can move extremely quickly and destroy towns in their path. According to the Smithsonian, "lahars have damaged towns on Villarica's flanks." The BBC reports that more than 100 people are believed to have been killed by the volcano's mudflows in the past century.

Most of the time, though, the volcano is a popular destination for hikers, who climb the 9,380-foot high mountain during the summer months to peer at the lava lake in its crater. A few tour companies even let people bungee near it.

Raging lava in the caldera of the Villarrica volcano in Pucon, Chile. Bungee jumping into an active volcano might not sound like everyones cup of tea, but one company is offering holidays for �6,300 to do just that. (Barcroft Media/Getty Images)

It's a beautiful sight — until it blows.